Variations on a Theme, 2011
When you write a song that becomes so popular that it’s becomes your song and you’re obligated to sing it any time you perform, that song’s bound to get old after a while. The summer amphitheater circuit is full of acts playing the old songs just like they played them thirty or forty years ago.
I find, though, that the musicians I most admire are the ones who can’t endure the drudgery of playing the same old songs the same old ways every night. In her performance here in Virginia Beach the other night, Mary Chapin Carpenter kicked off her show with a few of her most upbeat songs. Then she went into a set of more contemplative new songs that reflected the melancholy and recovery of her recent years. Finally, she slipped almost imperceptibly into a new arrangement of her anthem, The Hard Way, that caught more than a few people in the audience by surprise. Word by word we began to recognize the lyrics of this formerly hard driving road song hidden behind a new, much slower tempo and phrasing. I loved the original version. But I loved hearing a new take on it, as well.
I’ve noticed that Bruce Hornsby does this a lot, too. He’ll take a hard driving song and turn it upside down, allowing you to see familiar lyrics and the pieces of the original arrangement rearranged into something fresh and interesting.
When I was a much younger adult I took piano lessons. It caused no end of frustration to me that I couldn’t seem to summon the mental and visual coordination necessary to read music well. It also frustrated my teacher that I was able to play by ear and, therefore, didn’t always need to know how to read music.
Her technique for getting around this was to have me learn the notes of something and then play it in another completely different style; say, a Chopin etude played in a reggae style, or a piece by Mozart in a blues style. The idea wasn’t for me to learn to play in the new style per se, but rather to compel me to comprehend the page of music enough to know the music well enough to transpose it to a different style.
Now that I think of it, my 9th grade English teacher did the same thing. He’d have us write short pieces of prose and then have us re-write them in the style of, say, Ernest Hemingway or Time Magazine. This exercise taught us to recognize the style of different writers and to stretch our own style.
I’ve continued this exercise in photography. If I’m confronted with a situation I want to photograph but am not sure how to approach it, I’ll sometimes ask myself, “How would Andre Kertesz or Eliot Erwitt or James Nachtway photograph this moment?” I don’t have to copy that person’s style to complete the exercise. But just forcing myself to try to see something from someone else’s perspective invariably identifies different options.